GUEST POST: Russell James

Jack o’ Lanterns

There aren’t many things as singularly attached to Halloween as a jack-o’-lantern. At no other time of year do we shove a lit candle into a hollowed-out vegetable decorated with a ghoulish face. How did we ever start such a bizarre ritual?

As with most of our traditions, the jack-o’-lantern tradition came to us via immigrants. The Jack in jack-o’-lantern comes from an Irish folktale about a character named Stingy Jack. Jack invites the Devil to have a drink. True to his name, Jack has no money, and convinces the Devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack can pay for the drinks. Then Jack adds insult to injury by keeping the Devil Coin in his pocket beside a silver cross, which keeps the Devil from changing back from hard currency to the Prince of Darkness. Jack finally frees the Devil in return for the Devil promising to leave Jack alone for a year and to lay no claim upon his soul should he expire.

Apparently, Irish myth paints the Devil as a moron, because the next year, Jack tricks him again, trapping him in a tree by carving a cross into the trunk. This time, Jack extorts ten Satan-free years from the Devil in return for releasing him.

Alas, Jack dies before the ten years are up. St. Peter locks the pearly gates and won’t let such a trickster into Heaven. The Devil can’t claim his soul, so he sends Jack off to wander the night for eternity with a glowing coal to light his way. Jack stuffs it in a hollowed-out turnip to keep from burning his hands. The Irish called this ghostly figure “Jack of the Lantern,” which morphed into “Jack O’Lantern.”

People began to carve scary faces in turnips and place them by windows and doors to frighten off old Stingy Jack and any other unhappy haunters that might be walking the streets. The innovative British used beets. In either case, it sounds like kids making an excuse not to eat the awful things. Mid-19th century Irish immigrants introduced the tradition to America, and were no doubt overjoyed to find larger, pre-hollowed American pumpkins could take the turnip’s place.

In recent years, the jack-o-lantern has evolved at the hands of the gifted from the simple three triangle and a toothy grin face to feats of artwork almost too beautiful for roving teenagers to smash. Almost. There are even serious carving competitions held around the country each fall.

So that’s where we got the tradition of setting pumpkins ablaze for Halloween. Aren’t you glad that tradition took hold instead of the one where a matchmaking cook buries a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring true love to the diner who found it?

Russell James is a horror and science fiction writer. His recent works include THE PORTAL, MAMMOTH ISLAND, and LAMBS AMONG WOLVES.

The Portal
Three hundred years ago, on an isolated island in Long Island Sound, Satan tried to open a doorway to Hell. Now he’s returned to finish the task.

A black speedboat arrives at the small island community of Stone Harbor. Its mysterious passenger, Joey Oates, inspires terror by his very presence. He’s Satan incarnate, back to complete a ritual left unfinished three hundred years ago. A lost talisman called the Portal can open a doorway for the demons of Hell to enter our world. Oates plans to find the Portal, and finish unlocking it.

Former lovers Scott Tackett, family hardware store owner, and Allie Layton, flamed-out Hollywood actress, are about to reconnect after years apart, until they discover the evil growing in town. Only they can stop Oates’s awful plan and save the world from the living nightmares standing ready to crawl out of Hell.

Mammoth Island
As paleontologist Grant Coleman waits to board a plane for a much-needed Hawaiian vacation, thugs knock him out and kidnap him. He awakens on a cargo aircraft in flight to find he’s an unwilling member of an expedition to a secret Arctic location called Mammoth Island.

Unscrupulous fossil dealer Angelo Destro has assembled the expedition to steal the fruits of a Russian oligarch’s labors The oligarch’s scientists have resurrected extinct wooly mammoths at the island’s laboratory. But from the moment the plane lands, the plan goes to pieces. The lab’s scientists are missing, the compound is a shamble, and it looks like something enormous has crushed the perimeter fence.

Even worse, Destro isn’t the only one after this prehistoric prize. Before Grant and the others solve the destroyed lab’s mysteries, Russian soldiers arrive. Destro’s group is forced to flee into the surrounding forests, where killer mammoths lurk, ready to hunt more human prey.

Trapped between the twin tips of Russian bayonets and mammoth tusks, who among them will survive and escape Mammoth Island?

Lambs Among Wolves
Evil may soon consume mankind, if the demons have their way.

After the death of her father, young Cyndi Fisher travels to Paris to meet the grandfather she never knew. That man turns out to be Father Jack Cahill, a renegade exorcist who was unaware he’d fathered a child before taking his vows.

Cyndi is soon drawn into Father Jack’s world, where demons from Hell are possessing humans and robbing Europe’s churches of sacred relics. From the cathedrals of Paris, through the graveyards of France, and into the sewers of Rome, they confront the possessed, battle risen corpses, and fight gang members sent to stop them.

They uncover a plot to set Satan free upon the Earth, but stopping it seems impossible. Demons are always one step ahead of them, and each manifestation is more powerful than the last. Stopping Satan’s return will take courage and faith. Will an aged priest and an agnostic teen have enough of either?

Halloween Extravaganza: Russell James: My Review of Corporate Wolf

The werewolf myth is two millennia old. That’s a lot of furry fireside stories, a lot of novels, a lot of movies. The familiarity of the genre means anyone wanting to play in that sandbox needs to bring his A-game.

In CORPORATE WOLF, Stuart West does.

Our hero is Shaun, a worker bee in the huge Lerner Solutions Corporation living a cubicle slave life. He’s a bit adrift in his job, wondering if he’s promotable, wondering if he wants to be. After a corporate retreat goes south, he doesn’t feel like the man he used to be, and that’s where lycanthropy takes the stage.

Shaun is a well-defined everyman, struggling with the ennui and the politics of work life. His “best work buddy” Redmond is the gregarious slacker everyone has worked with at some point in their life. Damon Brogan leads the pack (pun intended) of Lerner managers and is the rah-rah boss people hate to work for. West does a good job painting all his main characters through dialogue and action.

What sets this apart from other werewolf tales is the clear parallels highlighted between the canine Alpha lead/pack mentality and common attributes of the corporate world. By the end you are wondering if there are any leaders in corporate America who AREN’T werewolves.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so I won’t kill the story by listing any here. There’s a lot of murderous action, but none of the descriptions rise to the splatterpunk level. West also leavens in a bit of humor to break the tension, but not enough to push it into Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolfman territory.

If you are a fan of fur and fangs, this will be howling good horror for you.

Corporate Wolf

The Writing Game

Stuart West might be an unfamiliar name to you. Check on Stuart West’s Amazon Author Page and you’ll be surprised to see over twenty works under his name, none being self-published. How does someone do that and be unknown?

Small presses.

Different from vanity presses you pay to put things in print, small presses still pay you. Usually not with an advance, but definitely with royalties. They are generally selective, unwilling to spend precious time and effort on a work that won’t pay back. They are also usually run by mega fans of the genre, and those folks know what’s good and what isn’t.

The small press problem is raising consumer awareness in an advertising-cluttered world. And that’s how a writer like West keeps leaping the hurdle to make the cut for publication and still you might still not have heard of him.

So I recommend you avert your eyes from the big publishers and the big names every now and then, and look at some titles from established smaller presses and from authors with a track record. Invest a few minutes in those preview pages Amazon makes available. There are diamonds out there like CORPORATE WOLF waiting to be discovered.

Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching late night horror. After flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales, including horror thrillers Dark Inspiration, Q Island, and The Playing Card Killer. His Grant Coleman adventure series covers Cavern of the Damned, Monsters in the Clouds, and Curse of the Viper King. He resides in sunny Florida. His wife reads his work, rolls her eyes, and says “There is something seriously wrong with you.”

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National Park Service Rangers Kathy West and Nathan Toland are the only ones stationed at Fort Jefferson, a restored Civil War fort sixty miles off Key West, Florida. Two overnight campers go missing, but before the rangers can investigate, shady Homeland Security agent Glen Larsson arrives to close the park due to a purportedly imminent red tide. 

Things quickly escalate out of control when mercenaries arrive to back up Larsson and imprison the rangers. Larsson’s plan is to free a cast of giant crabs to overrun the park, and then Florida beyond.

It’s up to Kathy and Nathan to escape the fort, and then, with the help of an old Coast Guard vet and a scientist with inside knowledge of the plot, to save millions of innocents from rampaging giant crabs. But Larsson’s evil plan has been decades in the making, and the crabs seem indestructible. It will take courage, teamwork, and perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, to avert disaster.